Spiritual fitness—like water on poison ivy

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Capt.) David DePinho
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing
Poison ivy--poison sumac! If you've never had it, you'll never know the sheer torture those four words represent. As a child I was a poison ivy and sumac magnet. We played outdoors all summer long and climbed trees that were covered with poison ivy and tramped through weeds filled with poison sumac.

All this might not have been as terrible as I am letting on if not for the fact we had a basic misunderstanding about the stuff. We believed it was spread by water! Of course today I know this is not true, and I now know a good dose of soap and water washes the oils away and limits the irritation of the skin. But back then my family and I bought the old wives' tale that water was the problem!

I would wait for days after being exposed to those irritating oils before I would wash, and all the while, the irritation to my skin just got worse. I would swell up to the point where I was barely recognizable; eyes swelled shut, large weeping blisters covering my body! Ugh! But I stuck to my beliefs and was always careful not to wash!

A while back before I deployed my parents came to visit us in Hawaii, and I asked my mother about why we never washed when we were exposed to poison ivy and poison sumac. She is now nearly 70 years old, and she said, "Because water spreads it!"

I was shocked. I told her what the doctors had said about poison ivy and sumac being contact irritants which would wash off with soap and water. I also told her it was just an illusion that it spread (was contagious) because after a person is exposed another person might touch their clothing or their skin while the irritating oils were still on them and "seem" to catch it. The truth is, once the oils were washed off the skin and out of the clothing, it was not something another person could catch.

My mother's answer that day surprised me. She said, "You're wrong!"

I asked her if she had ever checked with a doctor during those long weeks in my youth when our eyes had swelled shut, and she said, "No, why would I? I know what it is, and I know what to do about it."

Now all this was very eye opening. I've known for years a good washing will eliminate most of the reaction to the oil. My children, while being exposed much as I was, have never had the terrible reactions I did because we have them wash up immediately when we think they may have been exposed.

But my mother believed she knew something and stuck to her belief, even in the face of the very real and unpleasant results both for herself and for us! I tell that story because it helps me illustrate why some people might still believe they're wasting their time investing in their 'spiritual fitness.'

There is convincing and mounting evidence from the health care sector and from insurance statistics--which are seldom wrong since they make their money by being right--that people who are spiritually invested are more likely to live longer and more important, spend less time dependent on others in their older years. That translates to less time in the nursing home.

The Bible talks about God's desire for us to be in good health, it's repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments. 3 John 1:2 says "... I pray you may enjoy good health and all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well." So the evidence already cited suggests that God has designed us to run best when we are spiritually in tune.

The Air Force is convinced, as we are increasingly talking in terms of the whole person including physical, mental and spiritual health. Each contributes to our total well-being. For instance, people with poor mental health live shorter lives, just as the evidence shows people with poor physical and spiritual health live shorter lives.

The American Academy of Family Physicians has gone on record stating those who regularly exercise a reaffirming of their faith enjoy better health on the whole. The Internet is littered with medical articles about studies which demonstrate the value of an active spiritual life.

If you've been neglecting your spiritual life, may I suggest a change, a new investment? No? Satisfied with what you've always done? You may be, but sitting in your nursing home wheeling around in your chair one day, remember this: the evidence was shared, the cure (or prevention), so to speak, was available. Don't be like my mom and think you know best before you check the facts. A change may save you and your family a little pain and provide you many more years to enjoy.